Latin left­ists gain power with El Sal­vador vote

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY CAR­MEN GEN­TILE

With the elec­tion of for­mer tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist Mauri­cio Funes as pres­i­dent, El Sal­vador joins the grow­ing ranks of Latin Amer­i­can na­tions turn­ing to left­ist leaders amid global eco­nomic un­cer­tainty and in­creas­ing fa­tigue with the re­gion’s stan­dard bear­ers of power.

Mr. Funes and his Farabundo Marti Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front (FMLN), a for­mer guer­rilla force, ended two decades of con­trol by the con­ser­va­tive Na­tion­al­ist Repub­li­can Al­liance, or Arena party.

Mr. Funes, 49, said his March 15 victory marked a ma­jor shift for the im­pov­er­ished Cen­tral Amer­i­can na­tion, where a pro­tracted civil war be­tween FMLN fight­ers and the U.S.-backed Sal­vado­ran mil­i­tary in the 1970s and ‘80s left 75,000 dead. The war ended with a 1992 peace agree­ment signed in Mex­ico City.

The coun­try’s pres­i­dent-elect has no per­sonal legacy of FMLN vi­o­lence. Hav­ing never fought in the civil war, he has promised to lead a moderate gov­ern­ment.

“There is no time to lose. From to­mor­row, we will start tak­ing the nec­es­sary de­ci­sions,” said Mr. Funes, who promised to try to close the na­tion’s gap be­tween rich and poor.

Dur­ing months of cam­paign­ing, crit­ics ac­cused Mr. Funes of fol­low­ing the so­cial­ist model of Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez.

In his con­ces­sion speech, can­di­date Rodrigo Avila of the Arena party al­luded to those con­cerns, say­ing his party would “be a constructive op­po­si­tion, an op­posi- tion that is vig­i­lant so that lib­er­ties are not lost in our coun­try.”

Mr. Avila’s con­cerns are shared by some Repub­li­can law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill, who ear­lier this month sent a let­ter to Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton warn­ing of “FMLN ex­trem­ism” and “po­ten­tial threats to [U.S.] se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.” They cited the prospect of closer ties with Venezuela, Cuba and even Iran.

In re­cent years, Iran has reached out to other Latin Amer­i­can left­ist leaders such as Nicaraguan Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega, Cuba’s Cas­tro broth­ers, Bo- li­vian Pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales and Mr. Chavez.

There also are per­sis­tent re­ports that the Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah op­er­ates a cell in El Sal­vador.

Re­gional spe­cial­ists are skep­ti­cal of the claim, which they trace to a grow­ing Arab pop­u­la­tion in El Sal­vador and other Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries.

“If there are a few thou­sand Mus­lims in El Sal­vador, there are go­ing to be hot­heads that line up be­hind some­one like [Osama] bin Laden. But is El Sal­vador go­ing to be a spring­board where hot­heads can wage war on the United States? I doubt it,” said John Pike, di­rec­tor of Glob­alSe­cu­rity.org.

For­mer U.S. Am­bas­sador to El Sal­vador Robert White agreed, al­though he did spec­u­late that Arabs of Pales­tinian and Le­banese de­scent in the re­gion do­nate pri­vately to po­lit­i­cal arms of mil­i­tant groups such as Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah.

“I think to qual­ify it as sup­port for ter­ror­ists is mak­ing too much of it,” said Mr. White, now the pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Pol­icy.

Ex­trem­ism and ter­ror­ist con­cerns aside, the more likely sce­nario is that an El Sal­vador un­der Mr. Funes will have a closer re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Chavez than his pre­de­ces­sor and Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion ally, out­go­ing Pres­i­dent Tony Saca.

A cash-strapped El Sal­vador would ben­e­fit from the dis­counted oil pro­gram that Venezuela has granted other Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean na­tions.

But with oil prices plum­met­ing from a high of $150 a bar­rel last year, Mr. Chavez’s largesse with his coun­try’s petroleum has been cur­tailed, mak­ing his po­lit­i­cal out­reach less per­va­sive.

“On a good day, he is no bet­ter than an­noy­ing,” said Mr. Pike, dis­count­ing con­cerns in some Wash­ing­ton cir­cles that the Venezue­lan leader is be­hind Latin Amer­ica’s shift to the left.

Mr. Chavez has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to sup­ply aid to Bo­livia, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ar­gentina and other na­tions with left­ist leaders.

Ahead of the March 15 elec­tion, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion said it would work with who­ever won El Sal­vador’s pres­i­dency. In con­trast, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion sug­gested ahead of El Sal­vador’s 2004 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that a win by the FMLN party would ad­versely af­fect U.S.-El Sal­vador re­la­tions.

The end of the right-wing gov­ern­ment in El Sal­vador was brought on by the Arena party’s short­com­ings in the post-civil war era, said Larry Birns, di­rec­tor of the Coun­cil on Hemi­spheric Af­fairs.

“The rea­son why Arena lost is be­cause of its cor­rup­tion and failed pro­grams,” Mr. Birns said.

Mr. Funes made some lofty prom­ises to re­verse Arena poli­cies in the com­ing years.

Mr. Birns said the new pres­i­dent would have to work with lim­ited amounts of cap­i­tal dur­ing a pe­riod of eco­nomic un­cer­tainty.

“What El Sal­vador needs right now is a bread-and-but­ter kind of pres­i­dent that can im­prove the ad­min­is­tra­tive ef­fec­tive­ness of the gov­ern­ment,” he said.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion con­grat­u­lated El Sal­vador for hold­ing a free, fair and demo­cratic elec­tion. The State Depart­ment re­jected sug­ges­tions that Wash­ing­ton’s tra­di­tional sup­port for Sal­vado­ran right­ists might be a hur­dle in work­ing with Mr. Funes’ gov­ern­ment. It said free elec­tions should be the stan­dard for the West­ern Hemi­sphere.

“This is a demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment,” depart­ment spokesman Robert A. Wood told re­porters. “The peo­ple have made a de­ci­sion, and the will of the peo­ple needs to be re­spected.”

Ni­cholas Kralev con­trib­uted to this re­port.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sal­vado­ran Pres­i­dent-elect Mauri­cio Funes of the Farabundo Marti Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front party prom­ises to lead a moderate gov­ern­ment.

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